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Everyone Has a Story to Tell

I didn’t grow up in what I would call a sex-positive household—my father was the campus minister at a fairly liberal church, so the expectation that sex is for marriage was omnipresent, and there was often an air of foreboding surrounding the inevitable birds and bees conversations—but the line between what my brothers and I might choose to do (“We really hope you’ll wait…”) and what might happen to us (“No one has the right…”) was so stark that I never doubted my parents would believe me and support me when, at 17, I would tell them I’d been assaulted by my affable, intelligent, musically talented boyfriend.

It helped that my mom had begun showing me snippets of her own life when I entered middle school. A “trust can be complicated” here, a “some people think their desires trump others’ rights” there. Eventually—who can remember when?—she put the pieces together for me: “My boyfriend raped me.” And the general disgust toward sexual pleasure made sense in the context of her trauma. Later: “And he told me it was my fault.” And the terror at the sight of my developing curves, the opposition to my spaghetti-strap tank tops… well, still seemed unfair… but began to feel less personal, anyway.

It wasn’t until this year that another layer of her trauma revealed itself, when she told me that for years, her parents would relay to her—via a friendship they had maintained with a mutual friend—stories of her ex, and with varying degrees of mirth, laughed at him, laughed at that foolish choice she had made to date him, laughed at what he had become in the time since. For years, she seemed to chuckle along, perhaps a bit embarrassed, while inside she relived moments of terror and pain and isolation. Until she had had enough.

The way my mom remembers it (which I have to trust, because I, myself, am too pained by all the unspoken trauma here to verify this story with my grandfather), she interrupted her parents, saying, Enough. Saying, He raped me. Saying, I don’t even want to hear his name. And after years of holding the two contradictory beliefs that her parents loved her and that her parents would not believe her, it all stopped. My grandparents said that no, they didn’t want to know any more, and yes, they believed her, and of course, they would never speak of him again.

I asked my mom if she would let me interview her, on video, and put her story up on the internet for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I had written her a rambling, incoherent, embarrassed explanation of why it is crucial to share stories of survivors being believed, and why we have to work toward a society in which no one keeps that secret for as long as she felt she had to, and she replied less than three minutes later: “Yes.” I laid out for her the ways in which we could conceal her identity, options for using pseudonym for her ex, asked her what boundaries she wanted to establish on what she wanted to make public, and within the hour: “If it will help anyone, I’ll talk about all of it.”

My mom decided she wanted to relay details of two times she was assaulted, because she hopes it would be healing for her to say aloud exactly what her abuser had done, because she wants to provide context to her response to the assault, and because she believes in creating space to listen to the experiences of others in order to develop our sense of connectedness. However, this conversation may be triggering. Please practice self-care as you make a decision about whether or not to watch this video.

I don’t know if my mom objected to my adolescent wardrobe because she wanted to spare me the pain of being raped, or the pain of being told that my clothing was the reason for my rape. I don’t know if her discomfort with my cup size is rooted in the lack of control she felt over her own body for all these years, or the sadness all parents seem to face when confronted boldly with the fact that their child is no longer a child. It matters to me less and less, as we have these conversations and share our burdens with one another. I only know that I had the courage to ask for help because my parents had made it clear to me that they would believe me. I know that this is a privilege my mother did not have as a young adult. I know that my mother suffered because the world around her was whispering insidiously no one will believe you and there weren’t loud enough voices fighting back saying, yes, we will.


PS. I’m sorry about the unfortunate watermark. I had to do some video editing around a disclosure my mom decided she wasn’t comfortable making public, and didn’t realize until too late that the software I was using would not give me any affordable output options without that stamp (::shakes fist at the internet::).

- Kathleen Heavner James, Limited English Proficiency Coordinator, SCCADVASA

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